Pavel Khvaleev on Sleepless Beauty

Sleepless Beauty is the third Pavel Khvaleev film I've seen, this also happens to be my third interview with him. Being able to talk to a director directly about his film is a blessing, and Khvaleev's latest left me plenty to chew on. What looked like a simple horror flick on the outside, has actually quite a few hidden layers. How Khvaleev came up with the concept, how the actors coped and where that crazy piece of animation came from are all questions desperately waiting to be answered.

Pavel Khvaleev on Sleepless Beauty

Niels Matthijs: Since the first time we talked, it seems Russia has gotten a much stronger genre scene. Is there an actual scene, do you feel you are part of that scene, or is it just more people separately making genre films?

Pavel Khvaleev: In my opinion, Russia still has a lack of horror genre films. This is directly related to the superstitious nature of people living here, their religiosity and fear of taboo subjects. I can't stop recalling the run of Three, our debut film, where two female spectators made the sign of the cross over the screen and got out of the hall. To some extent, this explains the lack of competition in the horror genre.

One thing I've noticed is that Russian genre films often come dubbed, with the original dub usually quite hard to track down. Why did you choose to include an English dub? And why the title change?

Unfortunately, it was the decision of the American distributor, and we didn’t have a chance to control the result because of hard negotiations between the distributors and the sale agency. We got truly upset when we heard the result and realized that we couldn't change it.

While it may be easier to sell the film, do you feel the English dub may influence people's perception of the performances negatively (you'll see bad critiques about the acting, which seem related to poor dub quality).

Absolutely true. After the film's release in the US, we received several reviews and almost each one contained criticism of the American dub, which 100% affected the film perception in general. Now, I advise everyone to watch it with subtitles and with the original sound only. But I should note that in GAS countries the film was dubbed in German, and it was done rather well.

This is the third film I've seen from you, at the core of each film lie harsh critiques on contemporary society. What are the things that influenced Aleksandra and you while writing Sleepless Beauty?

The concept of the film was formed when we realized that human nature hidden beyond displays and web cameras is not at all the same compared to personal contact. We are our true selves only in front of our computers. Also, the concept was based on a true story that happened in the US: through collaboration with Ron Blackwell, who came to a hospital seeking treatment for his epilepsy, the researches discovered that our brain had an area devoted to face recognition, and this area could be affected. Matching these two ideas, we produced the story of Sleepless Beauty. I remember, at that moment we were walking with our kid in the park nearby.

Do you feel these are truly pressing issues, things you worry about yourself, and you see happening in the (near) future? Or do you consider them excesses, using them as a mere inspiration to make darker films.

What you see in Sleepless Beauty is already happening in closed chats. However, maybe no one has yet had the idea to carry out such medical experiments and make a murder weapon out of kidnapped people :). But our film features the present time, not the distant future.

People have been quick to compare Sleepless Beauty to Martyrs and Saw. While the connection with these films is obvious, do you fear this may screw up people's expectations regarding your film?

Yes, these films are similar in the sense of enclosed space, where the characters find themselves, but this is what I cannot affect, so there is no point in fearing. I can only hope that our film would give some new food for thought to the audience. We tried to make Sleepless Beauty full of unique concepts and visual content never used before.

I read Polina Davydova really committed to her character, like sleeping very little during the shoot, even not washing her hair? How did you talk that through with her, or was that something she wanted to do herself?

We had agreed it with her upfront. I remember how, when writing the script, we decided that to get a realistic performance out of an actress with relatively little experience in the film industry, we had to make her really feel what her character was going though. Sacrificing comfort came naturally to Polina while shooting, as she is always 100-percent devoted to her job. She also asked that the water poured over her in shot was cold, so that her acting was true, and she would actually shiver from cold. During breaks Polina ate very little and scarcely slept — giving the audience no chance to think that the one before them was not a true character.

I have to ask about the animated sequence, because that sure was something. It's one of those scenes that could've tanked the entire film, but in fact lifted the quality another notch. Who was the animator, and how did you get him on board?

The animator's name is Jakov Burov, we saw his work for the IC3PEAK video and realized that this was a unique artist able to make the necessary animated sequence for our film. And that is how it happened, without long explanations at all, Jakov made a unique visual sequence, that was truly impressive. We are delighted to have worked with him for our film.

One of the most interesting things about Sleepless Beauty is how the assassination plot, the actual core of the story, remains disconnected for almost the entire first hour. I liked the intrigue it added, but were you afraid some people might miss out entirely on the connection with the rest of the film?

Thank you for mentioning this connection. Unfortunately, we had to prompt some spectators at the pre-release, only then they fully understood the idea. But our task wasn't to provide a full understanding of the action to everyone. We had to connect several important interrelated and complex elements with each other. And in the script we intentionally placed these two scenes at the very beginning and the very end, thus creating and "enclosed connection".

It seems the scores of your films are becoming increasingly more fitting. How different is it to score a film, compared to creating music albums?

It’s always a great pleasure for me to work on film soundtracks, as I experiment with synthesizers to the max, tuning them as to find unique sounds. For the main scenes of Sleepless Beauty, I used the Reaktor modular system by Native Instruments. This process differs greatly from creating electronic dance music, where the rules of the genre always "breathe on the neck". And here there are no rules. :)

How difficult is it to mix your life as an increasingly successful DJ/producer with that of being a filmmaker. Is it something you'll keep combining in the future, or will you eventually pick one over the other?

It is very hard for me to switch over quickly, so I’ve decided for myself that now is time for music and I have focused on the release of my new albums. When the time for film comes, I will not be able to write music, as I’ll be fully engaged with the production of my new film. Such balance enables me not to choose just one thing, but successfully combine both activities.

Are there any future film projects we can look forward to? Any scoops as to what we might expect from you next?

Aleksandra and I now have three new and absolutely different scripts which require completion, and when we find the budget, we will start creating a new film. But this will be nothing like any of our previous ones.

Directors are given the chance to ask a question they've been dying to see answered, which I will then try to answer to the best of my ability. Since there's so much one-way communication happening between creators and audience, I figured it might be interesting to see what would happen if the tables were turned.

Is there a specific feature of the Russian horror film industry and if yes, what is it? And how is it, in your opinion, reflected in Sleepless Beauty?

I think what makes Russian horror stand out is that it isn't afraid to tap into local folklore and culture. The films of Podgaevskiy, or something like Superdeep and Sputnik, have settings and cultural elements that make it inevitably linked to Russia. This offers a welcome change when looking for a break from Asian and/or American horror cinema. They also share a certain starkness and harshness in their mood building, while still looking very stylized. I guess this is a more general feature of Russian cinema though, but it works very well within the horror genre.

That "Russian aesthetic" is definitely there in a film like Sleepless Beauty, though I feel you tend to add more signature elements in your films than most Russian horror films I've seen so far, which stick closer to broader genre conventions. So I think a film like Sleepless Beauty definitely has its place in the industry, but probably more as an outlier than a core niche representative.

What do you think, could the events with the character happen in real life? I mean, how realistic did the action on the screen seemed to you? When watching the film, did you ask yourself: What would I do in such a situation?

I think that separate elements of the film could definitely be happening in real life. All the events combined, it does feel less likely to me. Kidnapping and torture are definitely a thing, scientific experimentation is too, so is the callous behavior of the chatroom visitors. But I don't think such things could come to pass without anyone finding out sooner, nor is there a big chance of seeing that scientific experimentation combined with the cold-hearted torture. I just hope I'm not mistaken.

As for what I'd do in such a situation, I have no idea really. I'm not much of a couch philosopher while watching films, certainly not when it's about things happening to characters in stress situations, where I feel it's very difficult to predict our personal actions. I was more fascinated with the overall concept and its implications than the feelings of the characters.